By David Alexander
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping on Wednesday held his first talks with a foreign official since vanishing from the public eye nearly two weeks ago, telling U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta he wanted to advance ties with the United States.
Vice-President Xi's disappearance had prompted widespread rumors that he was ill or worse ahead of this year's five-yearly Communist Party Congress when he is expected to be named party chief.
Asked if he had learned why Xi had been out of view for some time, Panetta referred the question to the Chinese government but added: "Frankly, my impression was that he was very healthy and very engaged."
He said their scheduled 45-minute meeting had run over by more than half an hour, in part because the vice president "was very much engaged in the discussion" and wanted to raise a range of bilateral strategic issues facing the two countries.
"I believe that your visit will be very helpful in further advancing the state-to-state and mil-to-mil (military-to-military) relations between our two countries," Xi told Panetta during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People.
Pentagon spokesman George Little called the discussions constructive and candid, covering issues ranging from North Korea to "the importance of the peaceful resolution of maritime territorial disputes".
Panetta's visit has come at a fraught time for China, which is in the midst of a row with U.S. ally Japan over who owns a small group of islands in the East China Sea. The dispute has triggered anti-Japanese protests in China in the past few days.
Critics in China believe that a U.S. move to shift its strategic focus to the region has encouraged countries like Japan to be more bold when dealing with Beijing.
But Panetta, in remarks later to cadets at a Chinese military academy, sought to convince Beijing that the shift in focus was not an attempt to hem in China.
Panetta told students at the Armored Forces Engineering Academy that expanding U.S. missile defenses in Asia were aimed at North Korea, not China, and that deepening U.S. defence ties with allies in the region were to reinforce a security system that had helped China flourish.
"Our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China," he said. "It is an attempt to engage China and expand its role in the Pacific. It is about creating a new model in the relationship of two Pacific powers."
Panetta's remarks echoed the message delivered in meetings with defence and political leaders during his three-day visit.
But the message is difficult to sell to a skeptical Chinese audience concerned about U.S. missile defenses in Japan, expanding military ties with the Philippines and suspicion that Washington wants military access to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.
"The Chinese just don't buy it. They are not convinced," said Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.
"Moreover they see the U.S. as emboldening nations like Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam who have territorial disputes with China to directly confront Beijing."
Panetta has said the United States takes no position in the territorial dispute between Japan and China, though acknowledges U.S. defence obligations in the event of an attack on Japan.
Panetta said that while Washington and Beijing would not always agree, it was important to look to areas where they could work together. "We cannot let those disagreements and challenges blind us to the great opportunities that exist," he said.
Panetta told reporters later he was encouraged by statements from Chinese officials who said they did not view the U.S. presence in the Pacific as a threat.
"The key for them is that as we develop and strengthen our presence here that we do it in conjunction with developing a strong U.S.-China relationship and that both countries work together," he said. "That gave me a lot of hope that they understand exactly what our whole intent is here."
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)